It’s tough to imagine the pitch meetings for Diamantino, the jarring first feature from directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt. There would be a lot to convey: It’s a surrealist farce about the refugee crisis, mass media, the forces dissolving the European Union, contemporary gender politics, soccer megastar Cristiano Ronaldo, the greed of the one percent, the tech industry, the Catholic Church… and that’s not covering everything. You name it, Diamantino has something to say about it. That’s not quite true for the title character, a childlike millionaire athlete whose narration reveals an innate goodness and generosity, even though his extreme naïveté obscures his understanding of his own power. Metrograph talked to the directors about the film, their influences, and Ronaldo’s ego.
Austin Dale: I want to start by asking about two influences that I keep hearing about for Diamantino, which were sort of surprising to hear in the same breath: David Foster Wallace and Ernst Lubitsch. How did those two come to be primary sources for you guys, and how did that fusion come together?
Gabriel Abrantes: The two references don't seem at all far apart to me. They both seem to have some sort of comedic vision as a way to deal with contemporary politics. With Lubitsch, that big reference was To Be or Not to Be, along with other films that we feel are sort of in the same genre, like even Forrest Gump or Underground by Kusturica. And Wallace, he was very much a contemporary cultural and political critic who was always using humor, even though it might not always seem comedic because it’s a very specific sense of humor.
We just presented at the Tate Modern in London, and we actually talked about a short story by Wallace, which is called “The Suffering Channel,” an extremely comedic take about art and the role of high culture and low culture, set against the backdrop of the attacks of September 11th, which he calls The Terror. So this is the very basic link between the two of them.
Daniel Schmidt: We were acquainted with Wallace probably back in the early days of college and Lubitsch’s films were something we discovered a little bit later on, but I think what was reinvigorating about some of the Wallace texts, like these texts about tennis and athleticism and genius, wasn’t what had initially drawn us to Wallace's texts: Infinite Jest or these other fictional works or even “The Suffering Channel,” which has a strong relationship to to the real world. But I think what was eventually really attractive was seeing how Wallace brought a pop surrealist sensibility to this very contemporary subject matter, like tennis stars or the McCain primary campaign.
I think we were really interested in taking some of these sort of like more surrealistic, Wallace-type aesthetic, and applying it to something really contemporary, and seeing the way Wallace had done it in his nonfiction was a definite insight. And I think Lubitsch also you know, in his own time, has dealt with contemporary politics with some degree of immediacy. To Be or Not to Be has immediate relevance to World War II and Nazi occupation. Dealing with contemporary subjects in an imaginative and surreal perspective I think is what kind of unites both Wallace and the film in our minds.
AD: It can be jarring to see global politics filtered through comedy, and certainly it’s rarer to see something like the European Union portrayed in the guise of surrealism. I'm curious what the festival experience has been like with the film, and what, if anything, has surprised you about audience reactions to the film.
GA: We were immediately surprised with the selection at La Semaine de la Critique, and obviously with the prize, and then even more surprised with the positive reaction from mainstream press like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter towards a very goofball movie with a European sensibility, so eliciting a very positive response from these publications was really made us happy. And then, with the public, it seemed like people from all sorts of different niches of tastes were really responding emotionally to the character of Diamantino himself, which is really nice. Dan had somebody come up to him who said they had cried during the movie, which was genuinely shocking, for a movie that has a very not-serious tone to it.
DS: I think most people understand that the politics are a reflection of what's going on in the world, but that it's not really the heart of the movie, or even a serious take on the current state of things. The real story is this character we came up with and what's going on in his mind, in his heart.
AD: Casting the film must have been a challenge, what with the twins, who are extraordinary, and finding someone who could convey an association to Cristiano Ronaldo.
DS: Yeah, casting was a lot of fun. The initial idea for the script was set in a different country, different place, different time, a different protagonist. But when we switched last minute to the Diamantino that you watched, Gabriel had the idea of casting Carloto Cotta, who is a pretty well-known Portuguese actor, who is multi-talented in like the sense that he works in theater and in serious dramatic fare, and then also like soap operas and so on and so forth. They had worked together before, and they had a very good collaboration. Then Gabriel realized the unmistakable allusion to Ronaldo, but that light bulb in Gabe’s mind was almost secondary. But I also think it's funny to note that, even though we were probably introduced to Carloto maybe through Raul Ruiz and Miguel Gomes films, we weren't really thinking about those roles in these other Portuguese films.
And casting the twins was amazing. They are both actors, but they never acted together before, maybe like in high school, something in a play.
GA: In the script, it was just sisters right? They weren't twins…
DS: It might have just been like one sister, I don't even remember.
GA: The casting agent definitely suggested these twins that had never acted together before but were both actresses. One of them is quite well known in Portugal, and she works a lot in social realists dramas about like down-and-out like Portuguese characters. And they never worked together so, all of the sudden they got this chance to do something else that was in a totally different tone than what they are usually doing, and work together as sisters which they definitely appreciated. We did some trial scenes with them it was just like we immediately made the choice. I don't think we even saw anyone else for those roles.
AD: What is it like going to special effects companies with a project like this? I mean, I assume this is not the sort of thing that folks like that that are used to working on.
GA: We worked mostly with IRMALUCIA, which is a special effects company here in Portugual, in Lisbon. I was very shocked and surprised by this, but they work with people like Pedro Costa, who apparently uses a lot of special effects in his films.
GA: Yeah, to build these specific movements, or fabricate a perfect stillness, it’s often a special effect mapping situation. They’re very much used to working on auteur films, even though their main business is working on commercials. I’ve worked with them on a few things, a few short films. They were really big fans of Diamantino, and the effects are something Daniel and I are really in love with. But I have a sort of DIY relationship with it, meaning I like to go into After Effects and do some tutorials. For example, the holograms in Diamantino are all things that I did for the movie: The CIA interfaces, and whatever Dr. Lamborghini does. So there’s a real investment from my side.
DS: I think it's also a logical conclusion point from our previous works. We had been working with 16mm and constantly striving for these Hollywood-scale images, but never with the means and Diamantino was the first film that we had a budget for, but still, I think the effects and the 16mm film are beautiful but they are all, to some degree, sort of rough, and that comes from this handmade overly ambitious attempt at creating these images. And I was happy in the end that, even though they're all imperfect and flawed, they're all cohesive with one another. And I think that really makes it beautiful. I think if the effects were much much better, it would be something that wouldn't work, or if we had no shot on film but with the same sort of level of effects, it would have also been something really disjointed that would not have been as pleasurable to watch.
AD: I'm curious what you hope Ronaldo will think of the movie? Because presumably he'll see it eventually.
DS: Our producer's friend is a lawyer and we asked him, “Would he ever see it? What should we do?” And he said, “He will definitely see it. He'll be like counseled on what to say. He will ask somebody, ‘What should I say about it?’ and somebody will tell him to say that he's never seen it. So, I think that's actually what's unfolding at this point and time.
I mean, the film pokes fun at him, and I imagine that he's probably very sensitive in some way, as people with big egos, such as the one I imagine he has, often are. I remember a friend of mine once did a sort of satire of my personality in their play. And you go to the play and you see it and it's funny, and you're trying to have like a certain perspective, but you're always, like, blushing or whatever, you know? You're embarrassed by a stupid parody someone did of you. And so, I can't imagine what it would be like for him to watch the film. It's really hard for me. But the film is definitely not made for him. I think it's made for somebody else.
AD: This is sort of an ideological question, but what do you think is the role of parody in contemporary politics?
DS: I go back and forth on this a lot. There's all this theory that the court jester or the court fool is the one that can critique the king because they do it in the form of a joke. And this goes all the way back to Aristophanes, who was the only Greek playwright that would directly critique the people in power who were actually the spectators of his plays. So parody is this weapon where you can say the unsayable, and it seems very powerful, but then there's also the opposite effect. I think the shows in the US, for example Colbert or SNL, there's a feeling that they're very incisive and critical, but then there's discord on the other side. I will laugh for a few minutes and then we will just be complacent, because we feel sort of satisfied by the laughter that we share with people who share our opinion. I don’t know if you share that, Gabe?
GA: Yeah, to some degree, I don't know. It's also interesting to see how films operate historically, and I don't know if Diamantino will be something that exists or is lost in three years time. I think we were excited about the idea of making a film that responded immediately to what we see right now. But then it’s interesting to look back on To Be or Not to Be and see how that movie fares now and what its power is now. It's something different. It's less provocative but still strong. So I don't know. I don't have a strong stance. But I think this “Weekend Update” kind of humor is very pleasurable, but it’s very vaporous. I hope Diamantino offers something that's like sort of more multidimensional and generative going forward. But I don't know what will happen.